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A Middle East Transformed? Hardly

By Gregory Scoblete

While the clock has not yet run out on the Bush presidency, one can already discern the tragic irony that will plague his foreign policy legacy. The administration so deeply committed to reversing the political dynamic of the Middle East will leave office having significantly strengthened it.

President Bush and his aides have spoken frequently of "transforming" the Middle East. In a now famous 2003 address, the president laid out his "forward strategy of freedom." The U.S., he said, would break a sixty year tradition of "Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East." Such accommodation, the president argued, "did nothing to make us safe."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice committed her department to "transformational" diplomacy. The U.S., she later remarked, was not a "status quo power" but a "revolutionary one" intent on creating lasting change.

The focus on Middle East transformation owed to a simple but powerful revelation. After 9/11, the cost/benefit analysis of America's Middle East policy had changed. It no longer made sense to subsidize and support a political order in the Middle East that generated widespread - indeed lethal - resentment, especially when the dissolution of the Soviet Union left the resource-rich region without a competing great power vying for dominance.

Of course, the administration did not relinquish America's perceived prerogative to dictate political outcomes to the Middle East. Instead of a wholesale rejection of meddling-qua-meddling, the administration opted instead to meddle in ways it believed (with reason) to be more beneficial to both America and the region over the long run. Though they conveniently ignored the political premise of al Qaeda's jihad (the meddling's the thing), the administration did at least seek to redress some elements of the dysfunctional political dynamic that helped propel bin Laden's theologically-tinged hostility.

Historians will debate the sincerity of the administration's commitment to a democratic Middle East, but what is clear is that such a commitment has been completely abandoned. Thanks to Iran's bid for regional hegemony and the failed restoration of Iraq, the administration is arguing that freedom can wait, that it would be better for the sponsors and cheerleaders of 9/11 to dominate the Gulf than the Iranians.

It's a curious argument, to say the least, but it is one the administration has clearly committed to. In July, they proposed selling $20 billion worth of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, with $13 billion of additional military assistance lobbed toward Egypt for good measure. They have also steadfastly refused to remove troops from Iraq, even though the core national security objectives of the Iraq war - the toppling of Saddam and the neutralization of his WMD - had long ago been accomplished.

Indeed, far from withdrawing U.S. soldiers, the administration has sought to ensure their long term presence in Iraq as the backbone of a broader American security commitment to the region. Such a presence, President Bush has argued, would be akin to American bases in South Korea - providing stability not just for Iraq but for other regional governments by deterring a hostile power.

In a February interview with Reuters, an unnamed Defense Department official, touring the region with Defense Secretary Gates, put it more succinctly: "Most of the Gulf Arabs want reassurance from us that we're there [in Iraq]... to help deter Iran."

It's interesting to ponder the argument that more American blood and treasure be expended for the sake of "Gulf Arabs." Just to recap: On September 11, 2001, 15 Saudis, one Egyptian, one Lebanese and two citizens of the United Arab Emirates crashed hijacked airliners into American targets, murdering close to 3,000 people. All 19 were Sunni Muslims, followers of a puritanical strain of Islam developed in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The ideology of jihad that lures recruits from the suburbs of London to the hinterlands of Waziristan is promulgated by Sunni Imams and financed overwhelmingly (if indirectly) by the Persian Gulf monarchies we're presently clamoring to reassure.

The two architects of 9/11 and the masterminds of the global jihadist movement - Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri - are Saudi and Egyptian, respectively. The captured "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo Bay hail from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and even Australia. There is not a single Iranian among them. Nor have there been any Iranians implicated in the recent terrorist plots uncovered in Europe and the U.S.

In short, the global jihad that so directly threatens the American homeland and American interests around the world is not an outgrowth of Iranian-sponsored radicalism, but Saudi-sponsored Sunni fundamentalism. And one of the principle (though by no means exclusive) rallying cries behind this jihad is American support for the illiberal autocracies of the Gulf and, more broadly, American interference in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, the administration has argued that Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and its ability to threaten the Gulf's oil supply trump the threat posed by al Qaeda. (Of course they haven't made the trade off that explicit, choosing instead to blur the distinction by casting them all under the umbrella of "Islamo-Facism.") Such an argument, while defensible, isn't convincing.

Hamas and Hezbollah are indeed dangerous terrorist organizations, and Iran's support for these groups is a genuine security concern. But they primarily threaten Israel, not the U.S., and should therefore be a subordinate worry to al Qaeda.

As for the oil, Iran could certainly help drive prices up (indeed, one could say that President Ahmadinejad's bluster already has). Though U.S. consumers spend less on energy as a proportion of their overall consumption budget than in the 1980s, a sharp rise in oil prices could have significantly negative repercussions for the global economy.

There is ample reason to believe, however, that fears of an "oil weapon" are considerably overblown. Put simply, Iran is a one trick pony, and that trick is oil. If it attempted to impede the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz (the "choke point" through which close to a quarter of the world's oil supply transits each day) it would deal a grievous blow to its already brittle economy.

Besides, even if Iran suddenly became the regional strongman, it is in no position to pick and choose which countries get oil. "Once oil is in a tanker or refinery, there is no controlling its destination," wrote the CATO Institute's Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren. "During the 1973 embargo on the United States and the Netherlands, for instance, oil that was exported to Europe was simply resold to the United States or ended up displacing non-OPEC oil that was diverted to the U.S. market".

If we are concerned about Iranian influence over the price of oil, that is an argument against the centrality of oil as an American fuel source, not an argument for back-stopping the Persian Gulf's monarchs.

A truly transformational agenda would, as the phrase suggests, change the nature of America's alliances in the region. It would put distance between the U.S. and the Gulf's autocrats, not tighten the embrace. Such a course would not be a cure-all for Islamic rage (religious fanaticism ensures that it will continue to burn) but it would begin the long overdue process of dialing back the thermostat. A cooler Middle East will not only make it more difficult for al Qaeda to kindle new flames, but it will allow the U.S. to redirect its attention to the 21st century's looming geopolitical challenges in Asia.

The clock is ticking.

Gregory Scoblete is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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